On this day in Grateful Dead history, Jerry Garcia debuts ‘Wolf’ aboard a Hell’s Angels cruise with Merl Saunders

Among the many guitars in the cache of Jerry Garcia, “Wolf” stands as the most legendary of them all. “Wolf” was customized by luthier Doug Irwin, and was delivered to Jerry ahead of his appearance at a private show for the Hell’s Angels on September 5, 1973 in NYC.

jerry garcia wolf

Late in 1972, Garcia came across the first guitar Doug Irwin made for Alembic, which he bought on the spot for $850. He then asked Irwin to customize a guitar for him, and “Wolf” was born. Made from amaranth/purpleheart and curly maple with an ebony fingerboard and twenty-four frets, which were inlaid with African ivory (the first fret is mother-of-pearl).

The original version had a peacock inlay, later followed by Irwin’s eagle logo in its place. Later, a cartoon wolf licking his chops was placed by Jerry Garcia just below the tailpiece, which gave the name to the guitar. Irwin would later inlay the sticker into the guitar, which was labeled as “D. Irwin 001.” The guitar would cost Garcia $1,500, or around $8,700 in 2020 dollars.

“Wolf” would be played for two decades, becoming his most well known guitar and played across countless recordings, concerts and even in “The Grateful Dead movie.” Here, Irwin discusses the intricate detail of “Wolf.”

jerry garcia wolf

A few years after I delivered Wolf to Jerry, the guitar took several tumbles during Grateful Dead’s European tour. The first, a fall of about fifteen feet off the stage onto cement, had no effect on the guitar at all, but the second incident caused a crack to appear in the peghead. When Jerry finally brought me the Wolf for repair, the crack was actually very minor, but a stitch in time, saves nine. Repairing the crack wasn’t much of a problem, but having the guitar again made me reassess my early inlay work, and prompted me to reface the peghead with ebony and replace what I determined to be a poor excuse for a peacock with my signature eagle inlay cut from mother-of-pearl.

Doug Irwin, on “Wolf”

“Wolf” was played throughout the ’70s and ’80s, alongside “Tiger” and “Rosebud,” also designed by Irwin. “Wolf” was brought out of retirement in 1989 when Jerry explored using a MIDI synthesizer, and was played for the last time with the Grateful Dead at Oakland Coliseum Arena on 2/23/93.

In 2002, “Wolf” was purchased by a Deadhead, who later auctioned the guitar off for a great cause. The anonymous fans said:

I’ve been a fan of The Dead since I was a kid, and playing this iconic guitar over the past 15 years has been a privilege. But the time is right for Wolf to do some good. My wife and I have long supported the efforts of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and if ever we needed the SPLC, we sure do need them now.

Anonymous owner of “Wolf”

“Wolf” would be auctioned off at a price of more than $1.6 million, a bid that was matched by an anonymous donor, raising a total of $3.2 million for the SPLC.

jerry garcia wolf

The first show that Jerry Garcia would play “Wolf” at was a private show dubbed “Pirates Ball” on September 5, 1973, a private Hell’s Angels party aboard the S.S. Bay Belle. Performing with Merl Saunders in New York Harbor, the ship was known as the “largest marine ballroom afloat,” and was renamed to the Sound Line later after the show. The show also featured Bo Diddley, Elephant’s Memory and Mission Mountain Wood Band.

jerry garcia wolf
The S.S. Bay Belle, later named Sound Line

The guitar can be see in the movie/documentary Hell’s Angels Forever, directed by Richard Chase, Leon Gast, Kevin Keating, and Lee Maden.

Setlist: It Ain’t No Use, Favela, You Can Leave Your Hat On, Mystery Train, Harder They Come, Think, Finders Keepers

Wolf’s first appearance with the Grateful Dead was at the Nassau Coliseum on September 7th, two days later. The Dead were off the road for a month, and were refreshed getting back to business. Donna Godchaux was pregnant at the time, with her husband Keith having taken over keyboard duties from Pigpen a year prior.

This show marks the debut of Weir/Barlow’s “Let It Grow,” and one of the last “Bird Song’s” of 1973 before the song was shelved for a few years. Highlights include “New Potato Cabooose,” the jam that arose from “Playin’ in the Band,” a hefty jam from “The Other One,” and the “Eyes of the World” that followed.

Deadheads reported a heavy police presence that evening, with many fans arrested at or after the show. Cops reportedly drove on the sidewalks as the show ended and attempted to clear the crowd. They also seemed to use their batons to clear the area in front of the band between sets. This would influence the Dead’s decision not to return to Nassau for many years, until January, 1979.

Setlist: September 7, 1973, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY

Set 1: Promised Land, Sugaree, Mexicali Blues, They Love Each Other, Jack Straw, Looks Like Rain, Deal, El Paso, Bird Song, Playin’ In The Band

Set 2: Here Comes Sunshine, Me & My Uncle, Loser, Let It Grow-> Stella Blue, Truckin’-> Drums-> The Other One-> Eyes Of The World-> Sugar Magnolia, E: Around & Around

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